With markets in the United States heavily saturated, it’s difficult for major sports leagues like the NBA to build their audiences much further. At the end of 2019, it was reported that TV viewing figures for NBA games were down right across the country.
22% less people tuned in to watch on TNT, 19% less watched ESPN’s coverage and RSN NBA ratings also declined by 7%. There were exceptions to this rule, with local viewing figures up in areas where teams were doing well.
There are several factors to this. For example, the NBA has moved all of its US broadcasts to cable networks, meaning that the games are less accessible to fans. Meanwhile, with many star players on the rosters of west coast teams, the quality of talent on the east coast has been reduced.
In addition, a 2017 report by McKinsey & Company reported that millennials have been changing their sports consumption habits. Many don’t have TVs or subscribe to cable packages, watching 28% fewer hours of television each week compared to people the same age in 2010.
Similar problems exist in the NFL. Nielsen data from the 2016-17 regular season showed that millenials watched 9% less coverage of football games than the previous season. That said, more of them began following the NFL (a 2 percentage point increase to 67%), it’s just that they each watched fewer games for shorter lengths of time. It’s likely that the rates are similar for the NBA.
Combine all these factors together and sports leagues like the NBA need to find new markets. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing.
The NBA has been expanding its reach to international markets for several years. It has been holding regular season games in other countries since 1990, with the first match in Mexico taking place in December 1997.
Before then, several preseason games were held in Mexico City throughout the 1990s. The most recent one was in October 2012, with several regular season games taking place more recently.
Two areas that have been a major focus for the NBA have been the United Kingdom and China, with the NBA being by far the most successful US sports league in the Asian country. However, at the end of last year the league also announced a strategy to bolster its popularity in Mexico.
Currently, there is little Mexican talent in the league. There are no Mexican players in contention for the Defensive Player of the Year or other similar awards. Nor are there many contenders from elsewhere in Latin America.
A Mexican Team
The NBA plans to change this by welcoming the Mexico City Capitanes (Capitanes de Ciudad de México) into the NBA G League. The team had previously played in the top domestic basketball league, the LNBP.
The G League is the NBA’s official minor league that is designed to offer development opportunities for players who then may be contracted to join a main NBA team. Many NBA teams are affiliated to teams in the NBA G League.
From last season, players that were not yet eligible to enter the NBA Draft were offered contracts. Before this, players were required to join a college basketball team first, but this will no longer be the case.
The Capitanes will be the first non-US or Canadian team to join the NBA G League, and they will continue to play their games at the Gimnasio Juan de la Barrera in Mexico City. By having a league here, the NBA hopes to be able to develop talent within Mexico, which in turn will increase interest in the NBA in the country.
This has already been the case with other foreign players. For example, with more Australian players than ever before, the NBA has sold more League Pass subscriptions to Australian fans than any other country. While Nikola Jokic’s presence in the lead helped to spark a nearly 400% rise in viewership in his native Serbia.
Similar figures can be seen in Slovenia thanks to Luka Doncic, and Montenegro thanks to Nikola Vucevic.
At present, the NBA says that it doesn’t have any plans to launch an expansion team for its main NBA league in Mexico, but this move shows it may be willing to in the future.